Churches let their light shine for effective services

Lighting designers share tips for achieving an inviting and purposeful worship space.

By Robert Shook and Michael White

The spiritual connection between light and faith begins with the images called to mind by the familiar passage of Genesis: Let there be light. Light is used in many passages in the Bible to express the spirit of God manifest in the world.

As we begin to think about how to use light in a house of worship, there is a rich tradition to draw on. Light evokes emotional responses in people. A certain degree of care must be exercised to provide the right measure of emphasis and support without crossing over the line to the sensational or calculating.

Worship spaces today are used for a wide variety of functions, in addition to regularly scheduled worship services. Most churches host wedding and funeral ceremonies and many also present music and theater events for their immediate community. Lighting can fulfill many different events to address these programmatic needs.

Lighting hierarchy

Another important function of lighting is to support the visual composition of the worship space. Lighting designers often speak of the lighting “hierarchy” in a particular space. This refers to which surfaces, objects, or areas should be brightest, which should be secondary, and which should be tertiary. This lighting hierarchy should support the needs of a church, and at the same time enhance the worship space’s overall design, including permanent and temporary religious and architectural elements.

Lighting can also be used to focus attention. In many churches the lighting is modulated throughout a service to raise and lower the lighting levels in particular areas such as the pulpit, choir and altar to better focus the worshippers’ attention on the speakers, singers, or musicians leading a particular part of the service. If there isn’t anyone occupying the pulpit, there is no reason for it to be brightly illuminated, which would only steal attention and waste energy.

In addition, lighting is used to set the appropriate mood for a particular service or event. For regular daytime services most churches prefer that the worship space be relatively bright and well balanced. But there are many types of services that benefit from much lower lighting levels, or from lighting settings that emphasize particular aspects of the worship space, such as a cross, shrine or an architectural element.

Layered lighting

Lighting for architectural spaces is often referred to as having layers: different lighting techniques or effects within the same space that make up the total lighting environment. It is typical for worship spaces to include one or more the following layers:

• General lighting

• Front lighting

• Highlighting of religious elements

• Highlighting of architectural elements

While it is possible for a single lighting treatmenttofulfillmore than one layer at a time,most of the time each layer must be addressed separately with a discrete set of fixtures in a specific location within the worship space.

General lighting. One of the most basic functions involved in all types of activities that occur in a worship space is reading. Congregants need to read materials related to the service such as Bibles and hymnals. Celebrants need to read from their reference materials and notes. Choir members and musicians need to read their music. Ideally, this illumination should come from directly above at all times, so that shadows are not created that make reading difficult.

In most cases, this light should be direct light shining down into the space, not reflected indirectly from the ceiling. It is also important for this layer of light to be relatively bright and uniform, and special attention should be paid to ceremonial areas, particularly the center aisle where bridal parties are being viewed and videotaped for these once-in-a-lifetime events.

Front lighting. It is important to be able to see the worship leaders clearly during a service as it is to see performers during a theatrical performance. This layer of light assures that celebrants/performers are brightly lit from the same direction that the congregation is viewing them from the front. Seeing facial features has a direct effect on how well people hear, so good lighting is a positive step toward better understanding.

How bright the front lighting should be depends on two criteria: church size and technology. The greater the distance to the back row, the brighter the front lighting will need to be. Also, video cameras for image magnification during services — generally require brighter illumination than congregation viewing alone.

Pastors often complain that the front lights are glaring in their eyes. The fact is, if the front lights are not creating a certain amount of glare to the pastor, then the lights are probably not working effectively. Often the glare caused by the front lights can be reduced by locating them to the left and right, rather than directly in front.

Highlighting of religious elements. Many worship spaces prominently display specific two-dimensional and three-dimensional elements that represent aspects of their bases for belief: Crosses, shrines, murals, tabernacles, lanterns, screens, Stations of the Cross, and others. Lighting designers usually consult with worship representatives to best understand the relative importance of these elements to a specific church community, and to what degree they should be featured visually.

Highlighting of architectural elements. A church’s architectural design establishes a particular aesthetic that is meaningful to the worshipers. Contemporary churches in particular are often meant to appear welcoming, transparent and open to many viewpoints. Elements of historic churches such as vaulted ceilings, arches, columns, murals and organ cases often require special lighting to enhance their importance.

Video is an essential element in most contemporary churches and in many traditional churches as well. This has a direct effect on the lighting. Video cameras generally require higher illumination levels, and a different type of lighting than direct viewing by the congregation.

Proper lighting for congregational viewing is directed from a high angle to create shadows in facial features, which makes those facial features easier to read from a distance. Proper lighting for video is generally directed from a lower, flatter angle, to fill in the facial features for a more natural look when viewed by video.

Churches that make extensive use of video usually have large video displays in the vicinity of the platform. Most of these displays are projection screens, either front projection or rear projection.

Simple to complex

Lighting control systems for houses of worship range from relatively simple systems that offer a choice of several push-button preset scenes, to more complex systems that permit great flexibility but require skill to operate. The specification is driven by the programming needs of the congregation and the available budget.

Often, contemporary worship spaces are referred to as theaters and have true stages. Frequent changes to the lighting are required as the focus of the service moves from the minister to the projection screen and then to the choir and on to the baptismal. Some evangelical churches need to support the extensive use of video and dramatic presentations as part of the regular services, as well as, for weekday evening services and special evening events in the life of the church.

Another consideration for contemporary worship spaces is that in the creation of a theater space, very little natural daylight can be found within the church. A good deal of thought and collaboration with the design team is necessary to illuminate the space appropriately using electric lighting.

In the design of new worship spaces, as well as the renovation of existing spaces, it is becoming increasingly common for professional lighting design consultants to play a significant role on the design team. Architects and electrical engineers have a basic knowledge of lighting, but lighting designers can bring a much higher level of knowledge and experience to bear for this important aspect of worship space design.

Robert Shook is a founding partner, and Michael White is a senior lighting designer for Schuler Shook, Chicago, IL. []


2 Responses to “Churches let their light shine for effective services”

  1. jesus martinez

    we are remodeling our small interior church we don’t have a budget to afford a designer we are trying to do the best we can as a parishioners, so we are looking to get some help with our lighting sistem. any suggestion will help us a lot thank you and god bless you.

  2. We are on a marginal budget and can’t afford a lighting designer. At the same time we parishioners are trying to switch over from incandescent to LED lamps. The old fixtures do not lend them selves to easy conversion. Any suggestions or information would be greatly appreciated. Thank you best regards and God bless you.


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